Alfred was born in A.D. 848. At that time, the land we now know as England was a land filled with bloodshed, superstition, and fear. Alfred was the youngest of five sons. His father was King Aethelwulf of Wessex, ruling over scattered villages in the extreme southwestern portion of the island. For many years, the Viking invaders from across the sea had been making periodic incursions into Wessex, pillaging, burning, and destroying everything in their path. The boldness of these Viking invaders was growing, and some of them had determined to stay and settle the land.
During these days of ignorance and superstition, pagan idolatry still permeated the land. Although the Celts had preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Anglo-Saxon tribes, many remnants of heathen superstition continued. The hold of the Druids, the ancient pagan priests, was still apparent in areas of the kingdom not yet reached by the Gospel. The Viking settlers had introduced the worship of their pagan deity, Thor, and their mystery religion that honored war and bloodshed.
When Alfred was very young, his mother offered to give the prize of a beautifully decorated book of English poetry to one of her five sons. The prize was to be earned by memorizing the poems that the book contained. Although he could not yet read, young Alfred asked that the book be read to him over and over. He committed the poems to memory and won the prize!
Alfred was considered to possess delicate health. Very early in life, he exhibited an inclination to deep piety. He learned to read when he was twelve years old. In the face of superstition and paganism, the young prince was known by all to be a sincere Christian who had a deep love for truth. Books were rare in Alfred’s day. Few men, even among the nobility, ever learned to read at all.
His four older brothers were all in line for the throne before him, so consideration that Alfred would ever be king was unlikely. But war takes its awful toll, and in those days of almost constant warfare with the Vikings, Alfred’s father and four brothers all died in quick succession.
In April of 871, at the age of twenty-three, Alfred became king of Wessex. Many subjects in the realm wondered if the sickly young monarch had the ability or courage to lead the Anglo-Saxons in war against the Viking invaders.
Alfred had become king at a desperate time. Parts of the country, such as East Anglia and Kent, had fallen to the Viking overlords. London was in the hands of the same cruel invaders. Another Viking army was marching from Reading. It seemed that the two invading forces advancing on both sides of Alfred would squeeze Wessex into submission and place the entire kingdom under tribute.
The young king showed himself to be both a capable and courageous warrior. One month after being crowned king, he defeated the combined forces of two Viking armies. Attacking when he could, and retreating into the bogs and marshes when he must, he waged a long but successful war against the invaders of Wessex. Alfred understood that the battle was not merely Saxon against Viking. The battle was of good against evil, of light against darkness, of truth against error—a battle of Christianity against paganism.
Many legends and tales of great valor emerged from these days of war. Sometimes the historian struggles to accurately separate fact from fiction, but the remarkable record of Alfred of Wessex’s courageous victory in spite of seemingly impossible odds is beyond all doubt.
In the spring of 878, seven years after ascending to the throne, King Alfred received and accepted the surrender of the Viking army at the Battle of Wiltshire. The Viking commander was baptized, and King Alfred restored peace and safety to the kingdom of Wessex.
With the external threats to his kingdom subdued, Alfred turned his attention to internal affairs. Alfred was a rare man who could see past the immediate symptoms to the ultimate root cause. He believed that his people had fallen to the attacking Vikings because they had turned away from true Christianity and were clinging to superstition and idolatry.
King Alfred of Wessex believed that the knowledge of the Bible was the cure to all social ills. He gathered a group of trusted pastors and teachers and began to advance learning among his people. He became the patron of scholars who would translate passages of Scripture from Latin into the language of the people. Alfred organized a law code based upon the Law of God revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai. Historically, the code was known as the “Book of Dooms.” This code became the foundation of what we now know as English Common Law.
Alfred’s final work was a translation of the psalms from Latin into the vernacular English of his day. Rather than giving this work to one of his scholars, the king undertook the work himself and was able to complete the first fifty psalms. Alfred seems to have taken much comfort from the life of David, possibly because David’s life and work had been very similar to his own. Here is a sample of Alfred’s translation of Psalm 45:6-7: “The Lord, the God of armies, is with us, and our defender is Jacob’s God. Come and see God’s work, and the wonders which He works here on earth.”
King Alfred of Wessex died on October 26, 899. Throughout his reign, King Alfred truly obeyed the command of the Lord Jesus: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Having pursued the Kingdom of God, Alfred was richly blessed. He is one of a very few kings in British history honored with the title, “The Great.” Alfred’s kingdom prospered under God’s blessing because he made God’s kingdom his first priority.
Sources and Further Reference:
- Asser. Life of King Alfred. Boston: Athenaeum Press, 1906.
- Eidsmoe, John. Historical and Theological Foundations of Law, Volume II. Ventura, CA: Nordskog Publishing, 2016.
- Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006.